Begin with a Brain Dump by Tracy Krauss

It has to start somewhere. Your next writing project, I mean.

There you are, sitting in front of your computer with a lovely blank white screen, ready to start that epic novel, lyrical poem, or profoundly wise article. How do you begin?

Let It All Out

Quite simply, by downloading what’s in your brain onto the screen and then seeing where it goes. This stream-of-consciousness style of writing has served me well over the years. While I like to plot and plan, sometimes it is best just to “let it all out” and see where the words take you. It was my approach to this article, in fact. I thought of a number of different ways I could approach the topic “beginnings” for the month of January. Not sure which direction to head, I just started writing.

At first, the thoughts were random. Disjointed. Sentences were incomplete, punctuation was sporadic, and spelling mistakes abounded. I pressed on! Soon some well-defined themes started to emerge. I rearranged a few things, adding details here and examples there. I ended up with three very distinct directions. One was on my own beginnings as a writer. Another was about some family history that led to my love for words. Obviously, I made the choice to go with the third and most literal option: How to begin a writing project.

The Brain Dump

The brain dump, as I like to call it, is a process that works well for almost any kind of writing. Before that final draft can emerge, there has to be some raw material to work with. Some people like to do this by using a web or other graphic organizer, while others find that journaling unlocks their ideas. Either way, my best advice is this: just start writing. I say this to my English students all the time. Some sit there, waiting for inspiration to strike like lightning. They expect the entire poem, short story or essay to suddenly bleed from their pens in perfect form onto the page. Here’s an epiphany. It ain’t gonna happen.

This tendency to expect the perfect product from the onset, beginning to end, is probably the biggest frustration I have with new or inexperienced writers. Writing is hard work. It takes some wrangling. Some moving the parts around to get it just right. Even after multiple revisions, you might end up scrapping most of it. That’s okay. Allow yourself to write junk. Incomplete thoughts and mediocre words are never really wasted because they are catalysts for other, better, words and phrases. The old “polishing the diamond” or “refining the gold” metaphors are actually pretty accurate. Dump all your ideas—even the ones that seem questionable at first—and then chip, polish or burn the dross away.

Begin at the Beginning?

Another common frustration is trying to write in a logical sequence without the advantage of a dump-load of raw ideas. Beginning at the beginning doesn’t always mean starting at the beginning. Sometimes good ideas begin in the middle or even at the end. Just start writing and see where it leads. It is actually a pretty simple concept but one that many writers find difficult. How many times have I witnessed the newbie writer deleting everything and starting again? I advise my students to, at the very least, print off the garbage and then use these ideas as resources as they begin the next attempt.

Which brings me to another point. There is something about circling and scratching with a real writing implement like a pen or pencil that actually enhances the brain’s ability to organize ideas. It has something to do with the relationship between kinesthesia and retention. If you don’t believe me, check out the scores of research on the topic. (See footnotes.) Recent studies from various universities show that students who take notes with pen and paper consistently retain more information than those who take notes with a laptop. That little tidbit is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I suspect it is why I find journaling such a rich well for story ideas and why scratched up pen and paper outlines inevitably make more sense than the typed out version.

Whether you use old-fashioned methods like pen and paper or prefer doing all your writing on the computer, don’t bypass the power of the brain dump. Plotters and pansters alike can benefit from this simple technique.


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1 comment

  1. Pam Mytroen says:

    This works for me, too, Tracy. When I write for the newspaper, I just dump it all out there and usually after several paragraphs of meandering, I have found my lead. It took a while to learn this, like you said. I do like writing with a pen at times, and marking it up with lots of arrows. ONly problem is, I can’t read my left-handed scrawl after I’m all finished!

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